The Myth of a Model Minority

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the power of narrative and the way sharing stories reveals our values. Telling stories helps people understand how we experience the world, and they help us imagine what our world could—or should—look like.

If you read my blog, it’s no surprise to you that I feel this way. But lately I’ve been thinking particularly about the insidious potential for weaponising narratives: the potential for telling stories in a way that seeks to control or subvert someone else’s experience of the world. Perhaps the most subtle but powerful form of this is when people take stories that were originally told with innocence, good intent, and truth, and then weaponise those stories to control others.

Sharing a story can never be a neutral act, because every story carries meaning; the stories we choose to share reveal the agenda of our hearts.

One very well documented example of this is the Model Minority Myth. The term “Model Minority” developed in the 60s to describe the successes of Asian American people. This group of people was held up as the ‘model’ minority for overcoming the challenges of being immigrants in a foreign country and establishing themselves as successful despite the disadvantages. (Think wealthy Asian doctors and lawyers whose kids get A+ report cards for every subject.) This narrative praised Asian Americans for pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, describing a transformation from poverty to prosperity and attributing this to stable family structures and a cultural emphasis on hard work.

That all seems like a success story worth celebrating, right? Right?

Asian Americans were the example of an ethnic minority who worked hard enough to achieve success, showing that it was possible to overcome any adversity if you just tried hard enough.

On the surface it might sound like an inspiring success story, but dig a little deeper and you’ll soon find that this narrative was weaponised to condemn African American people. By setting up a narrative of an ethnic minority overcoming discrimination and becoming ‘successful’, it was easier to trivialise the effects of systemic inequality and blame black people for ‘not trying hard enough’ to achieve similar successes. The Model Minority myth was literally developed as “a racial wedge between Asians and Blacks,” and that continues to be how it is weaponised today.   

In telling one story—even a positive success story—another group of people were subtly marginalised and condemned for not working hard enough to overcome adversity. By upholding a single picture of what an ethnic minority must look like, it became easier to condemn other minorities for falling short of that standard.

You could condemn someone without ever saying a word directly against them. You might not even be conscious of passing judgment; after all, you’re just sharing a positive success story, right? What harm can there be in sharing a success story to inspire others to strive for the same outcome?

Lots, actually. Here are just a few of the ways the model minority myth harms people:

  • It makes false comparisons. Not all minorities are the same. Many Asian American immigrants had their visas approved because they were highly qualified professionals whom the US government deemed economic assets to their country, while many African American people descend from slaves brought to the US against their will and oppressed for generations, resulting in systemic inequality and economic disadvantage. While both groups may experience racial prejudice, their specific experiences are not remotely symmetrical.
  • It paints a single minority group as monolithic. Not all people within a minority group are the same. Even ‘positive stereotypes’ like “Asians are good at maths” leave struggling students overlooked because teachers may assume they’re ‘just not trying hard enough.’ On a more systemic level, it may erase the genuine struggles of a minority group if those struggles don’t fit neatly into the monolithic narrative, like how Asian Americans have the highest poverty rates in New York City, but the model minority stereotypes blind policymakers to this form of inequality.
  • It absolves people in power from responsibility and puts the burden on disadvantaged people to aid themselves. Instead of reforming systems that perpetuate inequality, the model minority myth implicitly says that inequality is the fault of minority people not trying hard enough to overcome adversity.
  • It models “contingent acceptance. This narrative is premised on the flawed idea that people must attain a certain level of success to earn the right to take up space, and the benchmark for what constitutes “success” is determined by a majority who holds power (and who by definition do not share the lived experience of the minority groups in question). Contingent acceptance undermines human dignity that should be recognised unconditionally.

Contingent acceptance undermines human dignity that should be recognised unconditionally.

The model minority myth shows us how powerful and insidious weaponising narratives can be, even when those narratives appear to be celebrating success stories.

So what’s the connection to sexual minorities? The model minority myth refers to ethnic minorities, but I’ve been pondering how it has a lot to teach us about engaging with sexual minority narratives.

As a ‘Side B’ celibate gay Christian, I often feel like I’m straddling some awkward no-man’s-land in the middle, where narratives of other sexual minorities can be weaponised against us from both sides. People on the ‘Side A’ or affirming position can share stories of how they were formerly repressed, self-hating homophobes until they saw the light and realised God blesses same-sex relationships, eventually finding their happily ever after with a partner they love. Whether intentionally or not, these narratives can condemn us as being repressed homophobes who haven’t grasped God’s grace and will never taste happiness until we become enlightened.

At the same time, we constantly get told stories from the other side—stories of people who identify as ex-gay (‘Side X’) and describe a dramatic “healing” from their unwanted same-sex attraction thanks to conversion therapy. Again, these stories often carry an unspoken question: why haven’t you been healed from your same-sex attraction yet? I sometimes get random messages from people telling some story of a person who used to be gay but who has now been “delivered.” Even though these people are usually well-meaning, it’s hard not to feel like they’re holding up a ‘success story’ (as they define it) to implicitly challenge why I haven’t yet been delivered myself. Should I try harder to pray the gay away? Should I get therapy? Do I have childhood trauma that turned me gay that needs to be addressed? In the simple act of telling a story, a complex paradigm of meaning and values is unveiled.

In the simple act of telling a story, a complex paradigm of meaning and values is unveiled.

Sharing a story can never be a neutral act, because every story carries meaning; the stories we choose to share reveal the agenda of our hearts.

I sometimes worry that the church is developing its own version of the model minority myth. Over the past ten years I’ve enjoyed seeing Christian culture take huge steps forward in acknowledging gay people in our churches, even going so far as to publicly celebrate the success stories of gay Christians who are faithfully and joyfully following Jesus.

But I’ve also started to notice that we only ever hear the ‘success’ stories. Usually it’s the cisgender same-sex attracted male who works in vocational ministry and is a gifted writer/speaker/self-advocate and who seems to be thriving in single celibacy (or occasionally the same-sex attracted woman who married a straight man and is now a pastor’s wife). Now here’s where things get complicated, because I am painfully aware that I fit neatly into this stereotype, and I am certainly not against my own story being shared, or the stories of other people like me. But when the only stories being shared in the church are of such a specific model minority, where does that leave all the other sexual minorities?

I adore my church and I genuinely can’t think of a better church community for me to be loved and encouraged as a gay Christian. I love that they don’t just quietly accept me, but they publicly celebrate my testimony. But I sometimes wonder how other sexual minorities must feel sitting in the pews and feeling very distant from stories like mine—the only stories they’re hearing in the church. How must they feel when these ‘success’ stories seem to erase their existence or condemn their experience? What space does a gay person have in the church to be still figuring out what they believe about same-sex relationships without having robust theological justifications yet? How does someone keep pursuing celibacy when they’re struggling with hooking up and they don’t know anyone who can relate to this? Hearing stories of the ‘good same-sex attracted Christians’ with their shiny, acceptable lives can be isolating and demoralising, even while it is an inspiring story.

Again, I adore my church and this is not a criticism of them at all. I am completely assured of their love for me and for other sexual minority people. But just like ‘positive’ Asian stereotypes of being good students and high earners can unintentionally harm both other ethnic minorities and also Asian people themselves, upholding a narrative of the ‘model gay Christian’ can marginalise other sexual minorities and make it harder for us to be honest about the ways we aren’t always model citizens.

Just like there are myriad different ways that heterosexual Christians experience life, there’s no one way to be a gay Christian. In her fantastic TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares the danger of a single story, and she shows that if all the stories we hear about a particular group of people paint them as a monolithic set (‘a single story’), we misunderstand and dehumanise those people. My mentor has a fantastic saying: “If you know one gay person, then you know one gay person.”

A single story is particularly dangerous when the narrative being told happens to set the gold standard of how everyone else must behave in order to earn approval of their community. Doctor Tseen Khoo in writing about the model minority myth points out the problem with “conceptualising Asian Australian groups as ‘assets’ and resources for the nation that are underutilised. If we keep going down that road, it requires us to be constantly overachieving and justifying our usefulness. It invites an only ever contingent acceptance in society (where certain groups get to call the shots when judging who gets to be deemed useful).” Just as Asian people struggle with the contingent inclusion of having to be a model minority to justify their existence, gay people in the church navigate a constant pressure of receiving “unconditional love” only as long as they present themselves a certain way.

“If we keep going down that road, it requires us to be constantly overachieving and justifying our usefulness.”

Doctor Tseen Khoo

It’s not just a matter of sexual ethics either, though my heart breaks for people like my friend who recently shared with me that she feels like she is only “conditionally loved” by her church until the moment she starts dating a woman and is forced to step down from serving at church.

No, it’s more insidious than that. It’s having our word choices critiqued and questioned and having people leave your church family (or ask you to leave) because you used the word “gay.” It’s having to spend months second guessing yourself about whether growing long hair will make people perceive you as “too effeminate” a gay man and calculating whether you can afford to keep paying rent when your conservative ministry partners withdraw their financial support. It’s seeing a straight friend decide on a whim to grow his hair out without agonising over it like you did and realising that it’s not normal to feel that your job security and financial freedom depend on a hairstyle. It’s trying to confide in Christian friends and learning the hard way that there are only certain ways it’s okay to talk about your sexuality: it’s not okay to be happily gay (“you shouldn’t identify with a sin”) and it’s not okay to be struggling too much either (“you should trust God more and be thankful”), but it is okay to be “struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction” provided you use all the right adjectives, show the appropriate amount of self-loathing, distance yourself from LGBTIQ culture, and present yourself as stereotypically gender conforming.

None of the above paragraph were hypothetical examples. All these things are real life scenarios for people I know or for myself.

When we set up a narrative of a model gay Christian and only tell that single story, we create a narrower and narrower picture of how gay people must look and act to earn acceptance in Christian community. We practice a contingent inclusion instead of an unconditional love.

Just like the model minority myth, what makes this narrative so dangerous is that we don’t realise we’re weaponising stories. We think we’re just celebrating success stories. And sometimes we genuinely are.

I’ve become very conscious about the fact that every time I write about my experience or speak publicly about sexuality, I’m inadvertently reinforcing the model Christian gay myth. I still think I have a right—and responsibility—to share my story authentically, but I recognise it would be a problem if the only story being heard was mine, or stories like mine.

Just like it’s okay for an Asian person to be good at math or become a doctor but not okay to expect that every Asian person is the same, it’s should be okay for a gay Christian’s story to be heard without assuming that they speak for all gay Christians.

If you know one gay person, you know one gay person.

Just like only repeating only the ‘successful immigrant’ stories can reveal an implicit judgement on other ethnic minorities, curating the stories of gay Christians that get heard sets an unspoken standard for what kinds of gay people are accepted in our community.

In a world where contingent inclusion is the norm, let’s be Christians who practice unconditional love.

Let’s love by listening humbly to all the stories and showing people the dignity they deserve as human beings.

Let’s love by recognising the part we play in perpetuating inequality and seek justice instead of weaponising minority groups against each other.

Let’s love by practicing gospel authenticity, telling the messy, complicated stories as well as the shiny success stories.

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